Levy Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Levy Surname Meaning

The Jewish surname Levy comes from the Biblical name Levi, meaning “joining.” The name was born by a son of Jacob and Leah in Genesis. From the tribe of Levi came the Levites who formed a hereditary caste and had distinctive duties during the Temple period.

The main surname variants are Levi, Levy, Levin and Levine. Levine was the common Russian derivative of Levi.  Levin has both Russian and Swedish origins.

Levy Surname Resources on The Internet

Levy, Levin and Levine Surname Ancestry

  • from Jewish migrants
  • to England, America, Caribs (Jamaica) and Canada

England. The Jews had been expelled from England in 1290 and were not to return until the 1650’s. It was then that Jewish merchants in London, having perhaps previously presented themselves as Portuguese, could legitimize their presence as Jews. By 1730 it was estimated that there were some 6,000 Jews living in London.

The Levy brothers were apparently in business in the East End of London from 1710 as matzo bakers.

“In 1928 the Jewish Chronicle joined a controversy to name London’s oldest shop. They said that Levy Bros, Matzo bakers of 31 Widegate Street on the corner of White Rose Court, had been established in 1710. They went on to say: ‘Antiquarians who love old pieces of architecture will find pleasure in studying the curious old carvings in the front of the quaint pointed roofs of the premises of this well known matzo baker.'”

There were other early Levy families in London in the late 18th century and the Levy numbers increased in the 19th:

  • one family history traces itself back to Moses and Deborah Levy in the late 1800’s.
  • another recounted the journey of Rabbi Aaron Levy to Australia in 1830 to get a bill of divorce for the wife of a transported Jewish convict.

The mid 19th century recorded Levys in London as orange merchants on Mitre Street, furniture sellers on Sandy’s Row, and street sellers on Petticoat Lane.

America. The first planned Jewish community in America was that established by 42 mainly Portuguese Jews who had come from London and arrived in Savannah in the new colony of Georgia in 1733.

Two of these original settlers, Dr. and Mrs. Samuel Nunes Ribeiro, were the forebears of the first well-known Levys/Levins in America, the naval commander Uriah Phillips Levy and, via a maternal link, the anti-Catholic politician Lewis Charles Levin.

Uriah Levy was born into a large Jewish family from Philadelphia, but ran away at the age of ten to serve as a cabin boy on a trading ship. He later joined the US Navy.

“After witnessing flogging in the Navy firsthand, Levy joined those who opposed corporal punishment. For this he was court-martialed in 1857 and dismissed from the service. Levy fought the decision through a Court of Inquiry and was reinstated. After his reinstatement, he rose to command the Mediterranean fleet and received the honorary rank of Commodore.”

Uriah, an ardent Jeffersonian, purchased Jefferson’s mansion at Monticello. He also made a fortune in New York real estate, as did his nephew Jefferson Monroe Levy who owned Monticello from 1878 to 1923. The Levys’ role in preserving Monticello has subsequently been downplayed by later Jeffersonians.

Moses Elias Levy, the son of an affluent Sephardic merchant in Morocco, started trading in the West Indies and then bought land in Florida, near present-day Jacksonville, to establish what he envisaged to be a “New Jerusalem” for Jewish settlers. He was one of the few Jewish plantation owners in the South; and yet he also wrote and published abolitionist tracts. His son David Levy Yulee, who shared little of his father’s beliefs, sought acceptance instead from Southern society and rose to become Florida’s first Senator in 1845.

Jacob and Henry Levy, two brothers from Posen in Poland, were amongst those who flocked to California when news about the gold there spread. Jacob stayed, married, and lived in Carson City and San Francisco for the rest of his life.

Later came the Levins and Levines to America, mainly from Russia. The peak years for their immigration were from 1890 to 1910. The following were among those arrivals from Lithuania:

  • Morris and Molly Levin who came to Dayton, Ohio in the 1890’s. Their son Sam built up a movie theater chain there and then prospered as a commodities speculator.
  • Rive Levine who came in 1907 and settled in Brooklyn.
  • and Leib and Basia Levin who arrived in 1909 and settled in Philadelphia. Their daughter Anna, interviewed in 1997 just before her death, could recall her life back in Kelme, Lithuania. Her son Jack Levin Weinstein narrated the family story in his 1987 book The Levin Family Tree.

The Levi name in America is probably best known for Levi’s jeans, first made by the German-Jewish entrepreneur Levi Strauss in San Francisco in 1853.

Caribbean. Some Leviens made it to Jamaica. According to synagogue records, the Leviens had originally migrated from Germany to London in the 1760’s and later moved to Jamaica. Sydney Levien was a prominent newspaper editor and Government critic there in the 1860’s.

Canada.  Herman and Camilla Levy came to Hamilton, Ontario from Alsace Lorraine in 1866 and were prominent members of the early Jewish community there. Herman established a successful business called Levy Brothers which specialized in diamond and jewelry importing. His grandson, also named Herman, amassed a distinguished art collection which he donated to McMaster University in the 1980’s.

Levy, Levin and Levine Surname Miscellany

The Levi Name.  The name Levi means “joined to” in Hebrew. In the Old Testament Levi was the third son of Jacob and Leah and his name refers to Leah’s hope for Jacob to join with her:

“Now this time will my husband be joined unto me, because I have born him three sons: therefore was his name called Levi” (Genesis 29:34).

Levi was the founder of the Israelite Tribe of Levi (the Levites). In the New Testament Levi was a byname of the apostle Matthew.

Levi and Other Surname Variants.  The main surname variants are Levi, Levy, Levin and Levine.  The following are their approximate numbers in the English-speaking world.

Numbers (000’s)   Levi   Levy   Levin   Levine
America    2    16    10    18
UK    –    11     1     1
Elsewhere    2    13     1     3

Early Levys in London.  There were four Levy brothers born in the Tavistock and Russell Square area of London in the late 1780’s – Lewis, Moses, Nathaniel and Daniel. One source has their parents as Lewis and Elizabeth Levy of Upper Smithfield Road, London.

Lewis married twice.  Some of his descendants ended up in Australia.  Little is known about Moses.  Nathaniel and his wife Sophia moved to West Ham and both were buried in the West Ham cemetery.  Daniel Levy married Amelia Jacobs of the Jacobs family in glass and chinaware.

Lewis Levin the First Jewish Congressman.  Lewis Levin was one of the most popular public speakers of his era, much quoted and anthologized.  He was born in Charleston, South Carolina and graduated from college there.  He briefly taught school in Mississippi before having to leave town after having been wounded in a duel.

He later moved to Philadelphia and it was there that he made his mark as a politician.  In 1905 a veteran Pennsylvania journalist and politician, Alexander McClure, recalled in his Old Time Notes of Pennsylvania Levin as being one of the shrewdest and most persuasive politicians of his time.

“A brilliant adventurer named Lewis C. Levin was the acknowledged leader of the Native American element that had erupted during the summer of 1844 in what is remembered as the disgraceful riots of that year in which Catholic churches and institutions were burnt by the mob.  He was one of the most brilliant and unscrupulous orators I have ever heard.

He presented a fine appearance, graceful in every action charming in rhetoric and utterly reckless in assertion.  I have heard him both as a temperance and political orator and I doubt whether during his day any person in either party of the State surpassed him on the hustings.  He was elected by a good majority and was re-elected in 1846 and ’48, thus serving six consecutive years as a representative from the city.”

The Levys and the Monticello Estate.  First it was Uriah Phillips Levy who rescued Jefferson’s Monticello estate in 1834.  Then in 1879 it was his nephew Jefferson Monroe Levy who performed a re-rescue.

But in 1911 Jefferson Monroe Levy’s dedication and hard work came under attack.  Maude Littleton, a New York socialite, led an anti-Semitic campaign to oust the house from Levy’s control and to present it to the nation as a national shrine for Thomas Jefferson.  After more than a decade of public pressure and private turmoil, Levy was finally worn out. He reluctantly sold the house to the newly-formed Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation and died three months later.

Morris and Molly and Sam Levin.  Morris and Molly Levin had fled anti-semitic Europe in the 1890’s at the time of the pogroms when Russia’s government were booting Jewish families from their homes and giving their lands and possessions to others. To escape, Morris Levin had to hide in a hay wagon, at great peril, to avoid capture by the Russian troops.

Morris and his wife Molly settled in Dayton, Ohio.  Morris was a tinsmith who worked in the heating and roofing industry.  He crafted hand-made duct work and hand welded tin on roofs. He was described by family members as having a passive nature.  This was balanced by Molly, a deeply religious woman with the stronger personality.

Sam Levin was the second oldest of their five children. He started out as an attorney, but only practiced for a few years – choosing the riskier and more exciting world of business.   In 1943, he started his first business, a wine store on Third St. in Dayton.  He later purchased some old farmland and constructed a drive-in theater and trailer park that Dayton natives will recognize as the Sherwood Twin Drive-In.  All told, Sam’s movie theater empire consisted of seventeen theaters in the Dayton, Ohio area – 13 drive-ins and 4 in-house.

Some ventures bombed, however.  His Polynesian-themed restaurant in downtown Dayton failed miserably. And he tried car insurance and almost lost his shirt.

His biggest financial success in fact came late in life.  He became a nimble player in commodity futures – soy beans and pork bellies – and made his fortune there.

Levy, Levin and Levine Names

  • David Levi, born to a poor immigrant family, was an 18th century English scholar and writer.
  • Uriah Levy was the first Jewish Commodore in the US Navy.  He later made a fortune in New York real estate.
  • Red Levine was an early 20th century New York mobster.
  • Bernard Levin was a well-known English journalist, author, and broadcaster on the 1950’s and 1960’s.
  • David Levine was an American artist and illustrator best known for his work in The New York Review of Books. 
  • Leon Levine founded the Family Dollar chain of discount stores.

Levy. Levin and Levine Numbers Today

  • 13,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 46,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 16,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Levy and Like Jewish Surnames

The Jews were banned from England in 1290 and did not return there until the 1650’s, sometimes in the form of Portuguese traders.  They were to make their mark as merchants and financers in London and many families prospered.  There was another larger Jewish influx in the late 1800’s.

In America the early settlement of Sephardic Jews was in Charleston, South Carolina.  In the 19th century Ashkenazi Jews started to arrive from Germany.  Later came a larger immigration from a wider Jewish diaspora.  Between 1880 and 1910 it is estimated that around two million Yiddish-speaking Jews, escaping discrimination and pogroms, arrived from the Russian empire and other parts of Eastern Europe.

Some Jewish surnames reflect ancient Biblical names, such as Cohen and Levy.  Some have come from early place-names where Jews resided, such as Dreyfus (from Trier), Halpern (from Heilbronn) and Shapiro (from Speyer).  Many more surnames came about when Ashkenazi Jews were compelled by Governments to adopt them in the early 1800’s.  The names chosen at that time were often ornamental ones – Bernstein or Goldberg or Rosenthal for example.  Then the name could change on arrival in America at Ellis Island.  And finally anti-Semitism perceived could cause further changes to conceal Jewishness.

Here are the stories of some of the Jewish surnames that you can check out here.



Click here for return to front page

Written by Colin Shelley

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *